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SXSW 2019: 2 Former Mayors Discuss the Future of Data

Former Maryland Gov. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith talk about how tech can change the public sector.

sxsw omalley
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, right, and former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith, left, spoke in at SXSW Austin on Tuesday.
(LBJ School)
The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin has become one of the world’s premier venues for movies, music, food -- and for cutting-edge debates about technology and public policy.

This year's SXSW included a forum earlier this week on how data can improve decision-making and help transform government. The panel featured Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (author of the forthcoming book Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age), former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith (a Governing contributor and the author of A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance) and Robert Shea, a principal at consulting firm Grant Thornton as well as a former associate director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and a member of the National Commission on Evidence-Based Policy. 

It was moderated by another Governing contributor, Don Kettl, a professor at Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Their conversation was recorded for a podcast as part of the LBJ School’s series “Policy on Purpose.” 

You can listen to the episode here. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

DON KETTL: There’s plenty of data out there. But one of the biggest challenges is putting it in a form where people will actually use it -- and where it will have some impact on policy. How can we crack that problem? 

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY: Awesome question. And the truth is, it's already happening. Mayors and county executives deliver very visible services, and they’ve embraced this revolution in openness, transparency, performance management, the use of the data, and the use of the map. That gives their citizens a view of service delivery in the life of their city in real-time. That's never happened before, and that's happening now. 

[In Baltimore], we were the first city to use 3-1-1 for all calls for city services -- to be able to give a customer a service number, a time expectation within which to expect the pothole to be fixed or the graffiti to be addressed. And that’s a big shift. 

MAYOR STEVEN GOLDSMITH: So now the question is, what evidence, what information do you drive to the field worker? How does he or she get that information? How is it put together? How do they make decisions? How do they exercise their discretion? This is the total revolution of mobile tools. So you're using evidence to manage performance, to make decisions in real-time as well. 

It requires somebody at the top to say, "Look, performance matters, but then you have to deliver the tools to the people who are doing the actual work, and then they can exercise their discretion better." It's very different than command and control, working in very narrow boxes, in hierarchical systems. Now we have a system where we're going to reward discretion.

So now, I think the right question is: What problems can you now solve with data? Not, how do you make data more interesting in and of itself, because it's not. If we focus on this:  here's a set of problems, now let's use the data to figure out how to solve those problems, then we can excite the folks in the public enterprise about how to use them. And I think that's what the secret is. 

KETTL: And Robert Shea, you've had experience at the federal level, trying to do this, arguably, at a far tougher level, where the distance between what happens at the top and the way in which the services come out the bottom is much greater. And what do you make of Mayor Goldsmith's argument that this data stuff, is often not very interesting to people?

ROBERT SHEA: Well, the data itself is not interesting.  The genesis for the bill you mentioned, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policy Making Act, came out of some best practices at the federal level. And those were agencies that thought really hard about what problems they wanted to solve and then went about collecting the data that helped them solve those problems, answer those big questions. So, we think there's an opportunity to unlock a lot of the data that's littered across the federal government and give researchers better access to it. Easier access to it. So that you can do the kinds of studies that answer these really important questions about what programs work. 

Invariably, when you look at programs at the federal level deeply, they generally aren't working. So, more insights into what is working and how to fix those that aren't we think is time well spent. 

KETTL: So, a notion is that we know some stuff is not working very well, some stuff is. How do you tell the difference? And your argument is that we can do a better job figuring out which is which, based on the data? 

SHEA: Yeah. We got plenty of data. We're already collecting plenty of data on anything that moves, but it's under-utilized. So, better access to that data should unlock these mysteries. 

KETTL: And can you talk, just for a second, Robert Shea, about this idea about the commission that was created? It was a bi-partisan Congressional commission. It was created to try to figure out how to do just that. 

SHEA: That's exactly right. Senator Patty Murray and Speaker Paul Ryan created a commission, the purpose of which was to come up with recommendations on how to strengthen the governance over evidence at the federal level so that we could, at least, have a fighting chance of making more decisions based on evidence. 

O'MALLEY: Let me key off something, Don, that Mayor Goldsmith and Robert Shea just said. Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, I remember meeting with a gentleman from NSA. He said, "You know, if we only knew what we already knew." And I said, "And then did something about it." And that's really what it comes down to.

This shift has really happened fast in local and city governments, and it is the future. But the key is, as Mayor Goldsmith indicated, is you have to get that ubiquitous, everyday use of data and the evidence to drive your deployment decisions, your tactics, your strategies and collaboration across different departments. 

And it also allows us to hold one another accountable in the endeavor at the same time that it gives citizens visibility into how their government's actually working. And whether or not it's working any better this week than it was last week. We never had the ability to do that before. 

KETTL: And what you're talking about, Governor, is, in a sense, creating a new kind of language for talking about what works and what doesn't and how it does and how to do it better. 

O'MALLEY: We’re awash in data. What we are still learning how to do is to visualize and make it understandable to everyone. When I served as governor was, look I want the people of our state seeing the same dashboard that I see. And I want them to see it the same that I see it. 

I don't want to wait six months, scrub it, only show them the pretty measures. If we're not showing them where we're missing goals, then the goals that we're hitting have no credibility. 

KETTL:  And Robert Shea, if I could ask you to pick up on that. What the Governor just said struck me as fascinating: the idea of seeing data. We don't usually think of data as 

something to see. We think of it as something to count, but often not something to see. 

SHEA: Using the data to tell stories that can drive decision-making is really important. You really want to be able to capture the anomalies in the data, where you need to focus your management energy. 

O'MALLEY: And the map can help do that. I mean, the map is a great integrator. We’ve all grown up with maps, but only lately do we have maps that can, because of the internet of things, reflect real-time. 

KETTL: And Mayor Goldsmith, you've been spending a lot of time looking at innovation, especially in cities, but across governments by government officials who've succeeded in doing that. You did that in your own work in Indianapolis, but you've been also looking at the way in which people across the country have tried to do that. 

GOLDSMITH: Right. You know challenging assumptions with the data will lead you to disruptive innovations. One of the issues with government is that it often operates by routines. In one way, that's comforting because the government will operate predictably, but that's predictably often slowly because you can't redirect your resources. Say a city like Baltimore, Indianapolis, particularly New York, has lead issues it needs to address, and not enough people to address them. So the data could inform you about where the riskiest neighborhoods are, where the riskiest dwellings are, where the kids who are at most risk live. And so, then, you use the data to identify the outliers, right? So now that we think about innovation, we're not thinking about just measuring the speed of response. We're thinking about measuring preemptive responses. Predictive responses. Solving problems before they occur. 

Taking the data and aiming it in the right place and aiming the worker in the right place. It's a totally different way to use data. It's a totally different way to operate a city or a state, and it will be the future. 

SHEA: Picture if you will the kind of volume levers that you'd have on a mixing board for a band, where decisions were made based on hunch or routine, to making them based on evidence. Slide the little volume knob across. "We've moved from simply responding to calls for service to deploying to a system of alerts. Again, based on the evidence. We have moved from the ability to make nice looking maps to the ability to do predictive analytics." 

But that describes not only what's happening in the police department. That's really the change that's happening across the board in government. 

KETTL: One of the things that strikes me about what all of you say is how important the role of leaders is—and how they can lead with evidence. How can a leader make sure that, if this is such a good idea, that it doesn't go away when the leader does. And, Mayor Goldsmith? 

GOLDSMITH: Well, the answer to the last question is you can't. 

KETTL: That's a scary thought.

GOLDSMITH: Well, I mean this: if you have an effective governor, like Governor O'Malley, then you begin to change the culture of the enterprise. Its use of data becomes more routine, and the way government operates will become better. However, there is no such thing as replacing a visionary leader with a bot. Somebody has to lead. Somebody has to set the vision. Somebody has to hold people accountable. Now, I think, though, over time you change the culture of the bureaucracy so that it operates better, the standard starts higher. So, it's a combination of the two, I think. 

KETTL: Governor? 

O'MALLEY: I think the driving force is not the technology, Don. I think the driving force is our ability to care for one another. And to care about one another. And the technology gives us the ability to have our actions actually rise to the level of our caring.

And if they are empowered with the data, then they'll continue to do good things even if you have a leader that takes down the open data portal or turns around the dashboards. There is still that muscle memory, and there is still that leadership ethic that's been activated.

KETTL: Robert Shea, let me ask you about that, because you've seen people come in -- if not hit the “off” switch, you've at least seen people try to switch it to “my switch”: A new administration comes in and says, "Well, that may work for the last administration, but we've got an even better idea which is different from the old idea." 

SHEA: Democracy's kind of a bummer in that you have to replace leadership on a periodic basis. I mean the reason why Mayor Goldsmith and Governor O'Malley are icons in the management community is because they are rare in that they invested time, energy, political capital in making lasting improvements to the government's operation. And so, it is a mystery what makes these guys tick, and more important, how to make it stick when they leave. There's no replacing good leadership. 

GOLDSMITH: The British have a saying, "It's important the governments learn to rebrand and not disband." 

O’MALLEY: I think there's a role also for academia to play here. I think that's a part of what it's going to take for us to really foster, germinate and make grow that trust that's starting to come back in local places. Can you show me my house? Can you show me where these policies are making a difference in my community for my kids? 

They used to say thatMi ssouri was the 'Show Me' state? We're now, the entire “United States of 'Show Me'.” People expect and demand that their government will actually be able to show them what they’re doing and whether or not it's working any better for all of us than it was last week. And the quicker we get there, the better for our kids. 

KETTL:  One of the biggest challenges of all, on the academic side of the street, is trying to find a way to pick this ball up and run with it, to support this kind of work. 

O'MALLEY: 'Cause the idea of a good research project is one that takes 20 years and is federally funded, right? 

GOLDSMITH: Whereas mayors want a project that's done in two weeks that they can deploy. 

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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